On the face of it, there is not much to connect the villainous Snoke, Supreme Leader of the First Order, in the Star Wars movie The Last Jedi and a Premier League footballer with a nagging hamstring injury.
However, the same motion-capture technology used to create villains in the Star Wars movies is being used to help elite athletes recover from sports injuries.
Vitrue Health, a healthtec start-up, uses sophisticated computer vision software to assess how sportsmen and others are moving. In many ways, it’s a more advanced version of the running gait technology which some sports shops use to help you buy the right pair of running shoes.
However, it’s a long way from Snoke’s home planet of Exegol to a Starbucks in Camden, where Vitrue Health founder Dr Shane Lowe and his partner Alex Haslehurst spent six months eking out cups of tea while they developed Vitrue Health.
Dr Lowe finished his PhD in biomechanics at NUI Galway in 2012, creating an algorithm predicting a person’s future ability to move based on how they are moving today.
He then worked for Oxford-based Vicon motion systems, whose credits include The Last Jedi and Kingsman 2, as a motion-capture camera developer.
The idea for Vitrue Health came after he and co-founder Haslehurst were chatting to an occupational therapist and were surprised to discover that the most technical piece of equipment at her disposal was a stopwatch. Both being engineers, they wanted to help.
Dr Lowe says: “Most assessment consists of a physiotherapist or an orthopaedic surgeon assessing a patient based on watching them perform simple tasks. Even for the best clinician it’s difficult to collate accurate data based on your sight. Vitrue uses computer vision software to track the movement and provide better quality information.”
Given the thousands of man hours lost because of back problems, let alone the cost of elite sports stars being out of action because of musculoskeletal difficulties, the pair came up with Vitrue Health.
“You can’t just build a medical device prototype out of a garage,” he says. “That romantic idea where you can just do something like this in your spare time and bring it to market doesn’t work.”
The pair first approached The Start-up Series in spring 2018 but the response they got was that more proof points were needed to validate the idea.
Later that year, they won a £50,000 feasibility grant from Innovate UK and each ploughed in £12,500 each of their own money into their nascent company.
How important was winning The Start-Up Series funding and what has Worth Capital done for your business?
The investment from winning The Start-Up Series enabled us to really kick things off as a high-growth company. It was completely pivotal for us. We had proven the feasibility of the idea. Now it was time to start scaling the team and building a product we could get out there. Worth Capital’s money meant we could hire a physiotherapist to push the clinical validity of what we were doing and some engineers to speed up development.
‘It’s important for founders to get validation for what you’re doing’
Apart from the equity investment, how has winning the competition affected Vitrue Health?
As a digital health company, it’s much harder to hit the standard metrics for a pre-seed round than for other companies. To some extent, you’re looking for investors who believe in the mission and the vision of it. The fact that Paul Soanes and Matthew Cushen from Worth Capital met us, saw what we were doing – even though we didn’t have those big metrics and revenue numbers – that gave us the belief and credibility. That makes a big difference for any young company. It’s important for founders to get that validation for what you’re doing.
It’s affected quite a lot of things. Our technology is one that you have to try in person to really believe. Customers for our core product are institutions or businesses that rely on seeing patients in person, such as elite sports clubs. Coronavirus has put a stop to that. The world of physiotherapy has been completely disrupted. It’s quite hard to roll out to patients because patients just aren’t coming in, which meant our customers were suffering. And getting in front of physiotherapists to show them our product was a huge part of our sales cycle, which we just couldn’t do anymore.
What changes have you had to make because of coronavirus?
COVID-19 has forced us to be more innovative and bring forward our product roadmap from next year. We were due to launch some of our products towards the end of 2021 but we turned our plans around, got our heads down and have launched them already.
We’re delighted to have released a remote workplace assessment tool that uses computer vision to help you get set up right. The number one cause of absence in the workplace is musculoskeletal problems. Industry spends billions every year making sure employees have good setups in their offices yet ignore what they do at home. Today, a huge number of employees are perched on kitchen tables or hunched over laptops in a corner of the living room, especially for office workers working from home. The explosion in musculoskeletal issues is going to be huge. Until now it’s been very difficult to improve setups without sending someone over to each employee’s house.
We’ve released software called Vitrue VIDA that lets employees quickly and easily assess themselves from home. We’ve taken the core algorithms of our clinic-based software and put them into an internet-based subscription service, where each person can log in and then the webcam will assess their posture, how well their PC is set up, and then give a personalised recommendation to the employer and the staff member about how to set up better.
The mission for our company is to be the gold standard for muscular-skeletal diagnostics. To do that, it’s not going to be a small lifestyle business. The next steps are expanding our clinical partnerships and rolling out to international health systems. We’ll go out into the funding marketplace in the near-to-medium future to raise more VC investment and accelerate our growth.